Saturday, January 10, 2009

Poker lessons from non-poker movies: "The Hustler"

Being as deeply immersed in poker culture as I am, perhaps it's impossible not to see the game everywhere. I have frequently noticed potential poker lessons or parallels in non-poker movies. To date, I don't think I've blogged about any of them. And for all I know, maybe I never will again after today, though I'm tentatively envisioning this as an occasional ongoing series of posts.

When Paul Newman died late last year, I embarked upon my own little Newman movie festival through Netflix. I decided to try to review his career in chronological order--not everything he ever made, but the highlights. So far I've seen "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956), "The Long, Hot Summer" (1958), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys," (1958), "The Young Philadelphians" (1959), "Exodus" (1960), and, last night, "The Hustler" (1961).

If you can't see important poker lessons to be learned from "The Hustler," well, you're just not trying very hard.

1. Take the money and run.

"Fast" Eddie Felson is loaded with talent at pool--of that there is no doubt. But early on in the movie he tries to take on the man who is, by reputation, the best in the world: "Minnesota Fats." (Note: There was a real pool player known by that name, but he took on the moniker after the film became a hit in order to capitalize on it. There is no evidence that the movie character was based on him.) Eddie sets a goal for himself: to make $10,000 from Fats in one night.

He does it. Soon after reaching that mark, his partner tries to get him to quit. Eddie won't hear of it. They keep playing, and after a while, Eddie is up by an astonishing $18,000. Again his partner pleads with him to walk away a winner. But for Eddie, it's no longer about the money. He wants Fats to cry uncle, to quit, to concede that Eddie is better.

Fats is too smart for that. He sees that Eddie's ego is crowding out his sense, and, further, that Eddie is getting drunk. Fats, being older and wiser, possesses greater self-knowledge than young Eddie (and can hold his liquor better, too). He knows that even if Eddie is a superior player, he (Fats) has the edge in endurance and a cool head. So he doesn't quit. On the contrary, he takes a break, washes up, shaves, changes clothes, and comes back both looking and feeling like a new man. Meanwhile, Eddie is getting drunker and more fatigued, fighting just to stay awake.

Predictably, the tide turns, and when all is said and done, Fats has won back all of the money. Eddie leaves broke again.

How many times have you had a great poker session, feeling on top of the world, then gave it all back, either little by little or in one fell swoop, and ended up leaving with nothing to show for your efforts? I can't count them myself. It's horrible. Of course, there have also been times when I stayed past when I thought I should and ended up winning a lot more than I would have if I had left, so it's not always a mistake. But that has never happened when my reasons for telling myself I should leave are things like recognizing that I'm too tired to play well, or that I'm at a table at which I have no significant edge in skill. The only times I've been glad I stayed past the point of thinking I should leave are when my reason for wanting to leave is simply to lock up a win. That wasn't Eddie's situation.

No, for Eddie, the pride became more important than the money, and Fats exploited that weakness magnificently, and it cost Eddie everything.

2. Know your opponent.

We might as well throw in here a conclusion that also follows directly from that first big confrontation between Eddie and Fats. Pool, like poker, isn't always about the best player winning. It's about knowing your opponent, his style, and his weaknesses, and how to take advantage of them. Whoever does that better will emerge the victor.

3. It's all about character.

A witness to the big match, Bert Gordon--played to smarmy perfection by George C. Scott--sees that the kid has talent and could be worth working with. He becomes Eddie's mentor/manager/advisor/backer. He tries to wise Eddie up about what's lacking in his game:

Bert Gordon: I don't think there's a pool player alive shoots better pool
than I saw you shoot the other night at Ames. You got talent.

Fast Eddie: So I got talent. So what beat me?

Bert Gordon: Character.

(Transcripts cribbed from this page.)

Way back in my "Poker gem #2," I quoted David Mamet's great essay discussing how poker is all about character. It's well worth re-reading. I hadn't thought about this before, but I can now sort of see how pool is the same. Sure, you might have fine skill, but if you can't control your mood, your temper, your drinking, your steaming, the distractions from outside the game (onlookers, what's happening in your personal life and relationships, etc.), you can turn from the hustler to the sucker.

I learned last night from the "special features" documentary on the DVD that the self-named Minnesota Fats--not a great player--could beat Willie Mosconi, then considered possibly the best in the world (and, incidentally, the technical advisor on the set) by getting under his skin. Fats knew how to needle Mosconi and get him angry, taking him off of his game. We see the same thing in many poker players: Tony G comes to mind as a world-class needler. It takes character to resist and overcome such forces. Fast Eddie couldn't do it until he gained character, through some painful experiences we see him put through as the movie progresses.

4. Don't be a born loser.
Bert Gordon: Eddie, is it alright if I get personal?

Fast Eddie: Whaddaya been so far?

Bert Gordon: Eddie, you're a born loser.

Fast Eddie: What's that supposed to mean?

Bert Gordon: First time in ten years I ever saw Minnesota Fats hooked... really
hooked. But you let him off.

Fast Eddie: I told you I got drunk.

Bert Gordon: Sure you got drunk. You have the best excuse in the
world for losing; no trouble losing when you got a good excuse. Winning... that
can be heavy on your back, too, like a monkey. You'll drop that load too when
you got an excuse. All you gotta do is learn to feel sorry for yourself. One of
the best indoor sports, feeling sorry for yourself. A sport enjoyed by all,
especially the born losers.

Psychologists at least as far back as Freud have hypothesized that gamblers, or at least the pathologic gamblers, are actually playing out a subconscious desire to lose. Freud, rather unconvincingly, tied this in, to childhood stuff about Oedipal fears and masturbation shame. But others have subsequently made more plausible arguments about the "born loser" gambler being one who secretly longs to lose because losing confirms his view of the world being fixed against him. If he won, that would be inconsistent with what he had previously concluded about the entire universe being out to get him, and he cannot bear that level of cognitive dissonance. So he loses. In the event that he gets ahead in a session, he inevitably keeps playing until the winnings are all gone.

I wrote once before about an extreme example of such a "born loser"--here. In fact, I've played with this same woman twice since writing that post, and she got worse each time. I'll probably write up those experiences in more detail some day. But for now I'll just say that it's patently obvious that she couldn't bear winning. She is so heavily invested, psychologically, in having her notions of bad luck and unfairness confirmed for her through a poker game that she cannot win. It would turn her world upside down. At a level that she herself would be unable to acknowledge, she loves making her miserable life all the more miserable by proving how supremely unlucky she is at poker, as I'm guessing she is at all other aspects of her life.

If you enter a poker game believing that you will lose, you will. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the game cannot be played successfully without confidence (though, of course, stopping short of the arrogance/cockiness/hubris that lead to downfall). Perhaps if you recognize in yourself that your mind isn't right and you're feeling like you're going to lose, you can overcome that disadvantage through self-talking. (I've managed that once in a while.) But if you enter the game not even being aware that you possess, somewhere deep down, a belief that you are destined to lose, you're doomed from the start. You are a born loser.

Fortunately, this is not necessarily a lifelong affliction. Fast Eddie showed that born losers can turn it around, though the road to enlightenment is a hard one. The film gives us a painful but, I think, ultimately affirming message on this point.

5. Don't tap on the aquarium.

Gordon warns Eddie that he needs to be careful who and where and how he hustles, or he could get hurt. Eddie doesn't listen. He goes to a pool room where he isn't known and takes a bunch of the locals for small stakes. But then he tangles with the local shark, and the stakes quickly go up. After they agree to play ten games for a total of $100, the guy says something that ticks Eddie off, and he says, "I don't rattle, kid. But just for that I'm gonna beat you flat."

He proceeds to run the table ten times in a row, never even giving the other guy a chance to play.

Both his opponent and the other locals who have stuck around to watch realize that they've been hustled, and they don't like it. They take Eddie into a back room and break both of his thumbs, putting him out of commission for months.

I think we've all heard stories from the likes of Doyle Brunson and T.J. Cloutier about how playing poker for a living in Texas in the old days was a risky way of life. Sometimes winning wasn't the hard part--getting out of town with the money was. Of more relevance to modern games, Mike Caro constantly talks about opponents being "customers," and one has to treat them nicely, make them enjoy losing to you, so that they will keep doing it.

Eddie hadn't learned that lesson. He didn't cheat, but he pissed off the wrong people, rather than being friendly and casual and charming. He could have taken their money without them ever having a clue as to how far outclassed they all were, but his ego, again, got in the way. He had to show off. As he himself puts it upon later reflection, "Cause, ya see, twice, Sarah... once at Ames with Minnesota Fats and then again at Arthur's, in that cheap, crummy pool room, now why'd I do it, Sarah? Why'd I do it? I coulda beat that guy, coulda beat 'im cold, he never woulda known. But I just hadda show 'im. Just hadda show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it's great, when it's REALLY great."

This is, frankly, one of the weakest areas of my game. Sure, I'm a substantially better player than the average tourist I play with, but I am pretty terrible at the schmoozing. I'm naturally kind of anti-social--even misanthropic, I'd have to admit--so the kind of salesmanship that Caro advocates is positively the hardest thing for me to do. At least I don't go the other way and irritate other players with arrogance and rubbing it in when I win and/or they play badly. Once in a while, when I pull off an excellent move, I can manage to say something like, "I just got lucky on you there." But that's about the best I have in me. I know that I need to learn to do more encouraging of the bad players to keep them playing badly. It's something I really need to work on. Fortunately, nobody has broken my thumbs because of how I acted at the poker table.

6. It's not a question of whether you can, but whether you will.

A rich man named Findley invites Eddie over to his home for a private game, but Eddie is surprised to see that the table has no pockets; the game will be straight billiards, not pool. (For an explanation of the difference, see here.) Eddie has never played it before. But, rather like a good poker player can pick up any version of the game and learn to prevail in it rather quickly (the best example of this is Jennifer Harman winning a WSOP bracelet in deuce-to-seven no-limit in 2000, having never played the game before, after a single ten-minute lesson in basic strategy from Howard Lederer), a superior pool player can adapt his skills to other variants and beat lesser players who trump him in experience in a particular form of the game.

So after a few games, they're about even in money. The host wants to raise the stakes, and Eddie does, too. He tells Gordon (his backer), "If that's his best game, I can beat him." Here's the dialogue as they're negotiating new stakes (my transcription this time):
Gordon: You really think you can beat him?

Findley: Of course he thinks he can beat me, Bert. He wouldn't be playing
me if he didn't--right, Felson?

Gordon: I didn't ask him can he beat you. I already know he can
beat you. I asked him will he. With Eddie, that's two different things.

Setting aside the technical point that Gordon's question was, in fact, "can" rather than "will," he makes a crucial observation. Perhaps it's not too different from what I've discussed already in this post, but having the technical ability to win just isn't enough. Do you possess the will to win? Do you possess the temperament to win? Do you possess the character to win? Those are not questions that can be asked and answered once, but must be re-asked and re-answered before every poker session, and even repeatedly over the course of a session. Whenever the answer is no, you need to either leave the game or somehow find a way to get the answer to change back to yes.

So there you have it: At least six worthwhile poker lessons from a non-poker movie. If you're never seen "The Hustler," it's time you rented it. If you've seen it long ago but never considered its poker implications, it's time to watch it again.

It's a movie about pool, but it's one of the best poker movies I've ever seen.

1 comment:

Short-Stacked Shamus said...

In Total Poker, David Spanier also thinks The Hustler is a terrific "poker" movie. He gives it a privileged spot in his chapter on poker movies, spending about half the chapter on it.

(More good poker on the horizon in yr Newman retrospective, dontcha know.)